Are both sides of the political spectrum lacking civility in American politics? Or does the far Left seem especially unhinged?
In June Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah wrote an article for Time Magazine emphasizing a need for more civility in our public discourse. That article is easily accessible online.
Will this article become an important milestone in moving this country to a less polarized and perhaps more even-tempered way of talking about political issues?
We don’t think so.
Mr. Hatch begins this way:
“An active shooter recently attempted to assassinate Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in the suburbs of Washington DC. Days earlier, a man spewing anti-Muslim hate speech fatally stabbed two individuals on public transport in Portland, Oregon. The month before, protesters came to fisticuffs at dueling political rallies in Berkeley, California.”
The Senator writes that in America, we have lost civility. He notes that: “I will be the first to admit to saying things over the course of my public service that I later came to regret. In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to indulge in irresponsible rhetoric. But we must avoid this temptation.”
He extolls his relationship with the late Senator Edward Kennedy as a model of civility between two people without a lot in common. He says that Americans increasingly sort themselves by ideology and typically don’t even date people from the opposite political party and then concludes by this:
“Today, I want to make a personal commitment to exercise greater civility in my day-to-day interactions with fellow Americans; I hope you will join me in doing the same.”
We agree with Senator Hatch on many public issues but about this article, it must be said: There is nothing here worthy of note and there may be some harm.
First, there is Mr. Hatch’s clumsy effort at false equivalency in his lead:
• The baseball shooter was a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Some of his Facebook posts were: “Trump is a Traitor. Trump Has Destroyed Our Democracy. It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.”; “Democratic socialism explained in three words: We the People.” “If the rich paid their fair share of taxes today, we wouldn’t be in this predicament. We need to vote all Republicans out.”
• The Portland killer’s Facebook page showed that he was a supporter of Bernie Sanders who switched to Donald Trump and then became disgusted with Mr. Trump. The killer wrote in January: “I’ve had it!!! I going to kill everybody who voted for Trump or Hillary!!!” We have no idea of his political orientation or even if he is sane.
• A lot has been written about the Berkeley Trump rally referred to by Mr. Hatch. All of the analyses note that the Trump supporters were holding a rally in a public space for which they had secured an approval and others showed up to attack them. A few weeks earlier in the same city rioters and arsonists blocked the location of a speech by a right winger.
Mr. Hatch’s thinking is muddled. First, these are not examples of incivility but of violence. The acts were criminal and in the first two cases murderous; the killers and aggressors don’t represent anyone but themselves. Second, If Orrin Hatch wants to show that both sides are resorting to violence he is unfairly targeting conservatives in these examples.
Next, is Mr. Hatch’s sonorous confession that he has said some things in his career that he later regretted. We could write that off as an utter banality, typical of politicians. Who has not said some things they regret since 1977, the year that Mr. Hatch went into the US Senate?
But it is worse than that. Mr. Hatch is unclear about what it is that he has said, that he commits to not saying in the future. That’s a problem because vagueness will lead to people confusing vigorous debate with incivility, bringing an unwelcome regime of political correctness. If anything, we need more not less debate and discussion.
Next, is his touted relationship the late Senator Edward Kennedy. It may have led to a rich personal friendship but the examples he referred to that brought the two of them together – the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Ryan White bill and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program – primarily furthered the Democratic agenda or led to noncontroversial legislation, often passed on voice votes.
We are not critical of the Americans with Disabilities Act, for example. But it is not an instance of bipartisanship. It is an example of a Republican coming over to support a progressive piece of legislation.
One gets the idea that Mr. Kennedy got more than he gave in his dealings with Mr. Hatch.
We also hope that Mr. Hatch does not imagine that his relationship with Mr. Kennedy led to greater civility where it counted. If he does, he should address Mr. Kennedy’s 1987 attacks on Judge Robert Bork during his confirmation hearings. (“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, …”) or those in 2003 on George W. Bush (the Iraq war was a “fraud made up in Texas”). Even more to the point was the Kennedy campaign’s anti-Mormon attack on Mitt Romney when Mr. Romney ran against Mr. Kennedy for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994.
What did the Mormon elder Mr. Hatch tell the man he calls “Teddy” about that type of commentary?
Absolutely nothing that’s on the record.
Finally, the sort of appeal that Mr. Hatch is making should come jointly, not from one side. Mr. Hatch’s article in Time would be more credible if he had teamed up with someone like Hillary Clinton like Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi have done. But then Mr. Hatch would have to have a hard conversation with Mrs. Clinton about her calling Republicans “the death party.” It easier just to write articles.
In short, we like Mr. Hatch but we can all be civil – and decide whom to date(!) – without preachments from him.